Saturday, March 13, 2010

Monk Week

This past weekend, members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra & Chorus (including yours truly) were privileged to take part in the world premiere of a still-untitled "New Work" by experimental composer and performance artist Meredith Monk. Saturday night's program also included Monk's Panda Chant II, in which I also sang, and her piece for chamber orchestra and eight vocal soloists titled Night (nope, I wasn't in that one). Plus, the show opened with Stravinsky's Monumentum pro Gesualdo di Venosa ad CD Annum, a late work based on the vocal music of the ahead-of-his-time 15th century master (and murderer) Carlo Gesualdo. And it ended with Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, one of my favorite 20th century masterpieces, as this poem bears witness.

Friday night's concert for the corporate donors cut the Stravinsky and added a crowd-pleasing performance of Beethoven's 5th at the end, but I wasn't there to hear it, having left after my bit was over. I was embarrassed for the cultural elite of St. Louis that night. We had a ball performing Panda Chant - which, admittedly, is as much an act of "performance art" as of music - some forty of us clapping and stamping and making a variety of weird vocalizations for about two minutes at the front of the stage, while the orchestra sat quietly behind us - but, in the presence of the composer (who was on stage performing it with us), the audience's brief, light applause was not so much a polite acknolwedgment as "damning with faint praise."

Then, after being the first audience in the world to hear the New Work, which (for all that the lyrics are neutral syllables and the soloists are amplified) is still a very attractive and intellectually satisfying piece, they almost failed to keep the applause going long enough for Monk to get on stage for her bow. It was just plain rude. I had been thinking of staying for the whole conscert until this point, but as I left the stage my thought was, "I can't be part of such a stupid audience. I spit on your Beethoven's Fifth."

I heard later that, after responding with bewilderment to Night (and I'm not sure the Bartók happened at all), the audience of corporate donors went nuts over Beethoven's Fifth. This just blows me a way. I had heard Night during rehearsals and thought it was a marvelous piece. Inspired by the violence in Sarajevo during the 1990s, it creates a series of palpable atmospheres. It uses orchestral and vocal colors to good effect. And, perhaps most important for a contemporary work seeking audience acceptance, it had intelligible themes and was pleasing to the ear. When I heard it in rehearsal I thought I must be listening to something by one of the powerhouses of the 20th century, not the experimental author of Panda Chant II and such whimsies. It immediately struck me as a profound, great, and beautiful work. And Friday night's crowd just tolerated it with a shake of the head before leaping to their feet for Beethoven's Fifth. What a shameful commentary on the inner life of my city!

Don't get me wrong. I don't think modern music is better than Beethoven. I still count Bach, Haydn, and Brahms as my favorite composer (a three-way tie). I still loathe Scriabin, Webern, and music that doesn't sound like music. I am impatient with banality, tedium, and melodramatics. I think Beethoven is awesome, and I could listen to his music for hours at a time without growing tired of it. But I am learning something about myself that I never expected to find out. Just as I can't stand cheese that doesn't have a sharp, distinctive taste (otherwise I might as well be eating rotten milk); just as I can't stand drinking beer that doesn't cut a firm flavor profile (otherwise it's only good for getting drunk on); even so I cannot interest myself in a concert of 100% old favorites. Why would I spend money on tickets to something I have heard a hundred times before? Why would I dress up, drive through Grand Center gridlock, pay a premium for parking, and endure leg cramps and the sharp elbows of my neighbor for three hours when I can just pop the CD into the player and enjoy the same music at home? What I want to hear, when I invest that much time, money, and trouble in attending a concert, is something I haven't heard before. Something new, something exciting, something perhaps dangerous... something that will enrich my inner life.

What I heard on Friday night, in the flaccid applause accorded Panda Chant and New Work, was an act of music criticism on the order of "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like." Frankly, I don't understand how you can know what you like if you haven't experienced art. How can you tell whether you like or dislike a piece of music when you have never listened to it? And when I say "listen," I don't mean the same as "hear." How can you listen to a piece when you have already made up your mind that you don't like it? And how can you make up your mind when you haven't listened to it - except by sheer, willful, bloody-minded stupidity? Ignorance I can excuse. Willful stupidity, in my opinion, is a sin.

In his book of essays titled Cultural Amnesia, Clive James makes a powerful case for his theory that, as authoritarian regimes replace democracy, as people's freedoms are curtailed, the result tends to be a net loss of variety and richness in a society's cultural life. In effect, a vibrant and diverse community of arts and letters can only thrive where people are free, and where their freedom is protected by a just rule of law. I now wonder whether the converse couldn't be true. Could it be that the more richly our thinkers, creators, and artists engage us, the more justice and freedom will thrive? If so, Friday night's audience at Powell Hall, in demonstrating against newness and vitality in their own artistic tradition, may have been casting a vote against personal liberty and the common good.

I heard Night on Saturday. It was spectacular. I stayed up late - even with "Spring Forward" Daylight Savings Time and an early start on Sunday morning still ahead of me - to hear the Bartók. It's a wonderful piece. Saturday's audience, a regular paying crowd who were there because they wanted to hear this program, responded more favorably. "This is more like it," I said to my neighbor onstage as they gave New Work a standing ovation - though it only extended through one curtain call.

There was nothing wrong with any of the music on that program. On the contrary, it was intelligent music, stimulating, moving, thought provoking. The program revealed unique beauties to the ear, the heart, and even to the eyes, such as the pleasure of watching a fugue theme spread through the sections of Bartók's double string orchestra, the surprise of seeing the celesta player joining the pianist on his bench for several piano-four-hands passages, the intrigue of the harpist swishing up and down the strings and of percussionists darting from one instrument to another. Night unfolded a strange and varied emotional landscape, here haunted by sadness or terror, there animated with uninhibited energy. In one night we heard folk dancing, madrigal singing, and patterns of shifting light; we heard human voices used as instruments, and instruments used as voices; we heard nonsense syllables given meaning by the texture and character of the music, and most importantly (for this is more a review of the audience than of the concert), we heard genuine delight in the voices that cheered these marvelous works of human creativity.


Robbie F. said...

BTW, the "New Work" now has a title: "Weave."

revalkorn said...

Have you ever read something that you don't understand right at first? (Maybe not. You're smarter than I am.) Sometimes it takes a while for what you receive to sink in. I'm not saying that was necessarily the case in this instance, but it's possible that the applause was lacking because at least some in the audience was still absorbing it. That doesn't necessarily excuse them for not giving the artist the deserved reception, but it might at least explain it in part.

Look at me, being Mr. Eighth Commandment for once. Don't count on it being a regular feature of my comments!